Constructing Housing and Lives

8 min read

YouthBuild fills skilled worker gap

“You’re not a loser here; you’re a winner!”

That is the message conveyed in each of the 264 local YouthBuild programs around the nation, according to David M. Abromowitz, chief public policy officer of YouthBuild USA, the national support center that provides training and technical assistance to the local organizations helping young people seeking jobs in construction. “We want not just to give work skills, but also change outlooks and mindsets. Love and respect are part of our culture,” says Abromowitz.

While “the prime motivation is to offer a second chance to low-income young people who, for whatever reason, haven’t finished high school,” YouthBuild could very well help solve the growing national shortage of capable and professional workers throughout the construction trades.  The demand for skilled workers is one factor pushing up the cost of construction and, as a result, pushing up rents.

YouthBuild’s origin story goes back to 1978, when Dorothy Stoneman, a Harvard-educated civil rights and community activist educator in East Harlem, surveyed the students with whom she worked, asking how they thought they could best improve their neighborhoods if they had some adult support.

“We’d rebuild the houses. We’d take empty buildings back from the drug dealers and eliminate crime,” was the collective response as reported in YouthBuild’s official history.

As an experiment, Stoneman formed the Youth Action Program and, with professional guidance, local teens completed a gut rehabilitation of an abandoned ten-unit East Harlem tenement. This created a model that attracted enough attention for Stoneman to organize a citywide coalition of 500 organizations to institutionalize the program.

By 1984, they were able to persuade Mayor Ed Koch and the New York City Council to provide tax-levy funding for six nonprofits to establish YouthBuild programs in their neighborhoods. Stoneman and fellow activist Leroy Looper founded the National YouthBuild Coalition and in 1990 formed YouthBuild USA to scale up the program as a proven innovation to break the cycle of poverty. In 1991, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) toured the East Harlem program and came away so impressed that he introduced the Federal YouthBuild Act with co-sponsorship from Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) and 18 others. The House bill boasted 75 bipartisan sponsors and was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

Starting out with funding for 31 local programs, YouthBuild grants were administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, since it was mainly aimed at affordable housing. By the end of the George W. Bush administration, it had grown to 150 local programs. By 2007, it was recognized as more of a workforce development effort and was transferred to the Department of Labor. Since inception, more than 130,000 YouthBuild students have produced over 28,000 units of affordable housing.

The official twin mission “is to unleash the intelligence and positive energy of low-income young people to rebuild their communities and their lives.”

HUD still exerts an important influence. Since HUD-funded developments require jobs and training for community members, Abromowitz states that the department “is now overtly saying that hiring YouthBuild participants will ‘increase the competitiveness” of various funding applications.”

YouthBuild is aimed at 16-to-24-year-olds and each program is started by a local nonprofit organization. There are currently 20 community development corporations, 40 community action agencies, YMCA and Goodwill chapters, as well as mayors’ offices and workforce boards participating. There are usually about three applications for each available grant, which covers up to 75 percent of the program cost for two years. The rest must be obtained from a non-federal government source, which, Abromowitz notes, “makes sure the program is community-based and that the locals have skin in the game.” The program encompasses both men and women (at about a two-to-one ratio) and all races and ethnic groups. The average age at entry is 19.5 and nearly a quarter are already parents. Ninety-two percent have no high school diploma and 75 percent of those attain one or a GED by program’s end. Nearly a third have been adjudicated of a crime, but the recidivism rate after YouthBuild is only nine percent.

“A YouthBuild program is like a small vocational school,” Abromowitz explains. “These low-income young people typically spend nine to 12 months, with half their time in a classroom, working toward a GED or high school diploma, while spending the other half of their time working on an actual real construction site learning job skills by building affordable housing for their communities.” He notes that various types of counseling are also offered, including substance abuse help and post-secondary school direction. Enrollees are paid a stipend for the time they’re on the construction site to connect the concepts of work and pay.

YouthBuild is officially designated as a pre-apprenticeship program from which participants can then secure full apprenticeships. This is just one way it can be a triple-win endeavor.

At-risk teens and young adults who haven’t been able to complete high school and may have had encounters with the criminal justice system are given a second chance and the opportunity to learn a lifelong trade. They are then in a position to replenish the pool of skilled workers in their 50s and 60s who are retiring. And they provide the labor for affordable housing construction and other worthwhile projects.

“What YouthBuild can do, and is doing, is tapping into a pool of talent that is underutilized, that when given the chance, will work in the construction trades and consider them as a career. A year in YouthBuild shows these young people that they have both brains and talent. And if the construction industry recognizes them, they’ll respond.” YouthBuild USA has a fulltime director of partnerships to fashion relationships with local builders.

Ravi Malhotra is an engineer and social entrepreneur who has focused on sustainable technology, particularly regarding affordable housing. He founded the International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology (ICAST)in 2002 as an initiative in the Engineering School at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It is now an independent nonprofit company that retrofits multifamily residential buildings and engages in impact financing through its TBL (Triple Bottom Line) Fund. He is a great believer in the YouthBuild concept and has been using its services for years.

“From our perspective, it’s a win-win,” he declares. “Helping low-income workers is part of our nonprofit mission, and it’s a cost-effective means for completing our work. Even though we are nonprofit, we operate on a fee-for-service model that we’ve dropped in their lap.”

Malhotra contracts with local YouthBuild organizations and then teaches their enrollees how to change out light bulbs, showerheads, aerators and other basic green upgrades. “Working with us gives them on-the-job training and experience in the real world. And it gets more interesting because we can build on their baseline training. They start learning how to install programmable thermostats, low-flow toilets and other more complex tasks. And then we ask them, ‘Can you show the same initiative for business development and sales?’”

As ICAST’s business expands, Malhotra wants to continue using YouthBuild. “For example, we are doing nine projects in Mississippi. So we say to our YouthBuild contacts, ‘How about introducing us to the local YouthBuild organization?’ Hopefully, they’ll continue to grow with us.” Malhotra’s approach is being duplicated around the nation and overseas as well.

David Abromowitz gave up a lucrative partnership in a nationally known law firm when Dorothy Stoneman asked him to come to YouthBuild. He was hesitant to mention the offer to his wife, but when he did, she replied enthusiastically, “What? Were you going to wait until you were too old to accept a job like this?”

As he put it in an article entitled “Tradesmen of the Future,” “The affordable housing community, long adept at public-private partnerships, is well poised to lead the way towards both addressing the huge looming construction labor shortage, and creating lasting economic opportunities for the very population it serves.”

Finally, YouthBuild graduates serve as role models for those that come after them, whether they end up in the construction field or not. There are thousands of stories now in YouthBuild’s annals. Typical is Ruben Castro from Luling, TX, who was on probation and in a drug rehab program when one of his counselors suggested he apply to Casa Verde YouthBuild in Austin. “I wanted to reclaim my future and transform my life,” he says.

“On my first day, I didn’t even know how to read the marks on a tape measure. When I graduated, I was OSHA-certified and building energy-efficient homes for local low-income families, very much like my own. More than anything, YouthBuild teachers and students supported each other and held one another accountable for our actions.”

Story Contacts:
David Abromowitz, Esquire, Goulston & Storrs P.C.

Ravi Malhotra, Founder and President
International Center for Appropriate & Sustainable Technology